Great Lakes Conference Tackles Diversity

Simone Lightfoot, National Wildlife Federation [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]
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As the Healing Our Waters conference gets underway in Buffalo, environmental advocates from around the region have a front-row seat to issues central to the city.

But the conference is also a time to gather hundreds of environmentalists and start to inspire change -- on issues like diversity.  

As it did last year, this week’s conference features panelists discussing racial diversity and how it relates to the environmental movement.  But panelists now say they’ve seen some change.  “We started doing some very difficult work last year around diversity, equity and inclusion,” says the National Wildlife Federation’s Simone Lightfoot.  “It was rapid pace, it was without a lot of prep time and prep conversations, we just had to get it done.”

“A rare opportunity” to voice experience, concern as people of color

The first day of the conference included panels on Plan 2014 and the corn ethanol mandate. Lightfoot moderated a panel featuring women of color working in the conservation movement.  Clark University PhD student Janae Davis and PUSH Buffalo’s Rahwa Ghirmatzion sat on the panel.  Davis called the experience an amazing and rare opportunity.  “There are a lot of things we encounter – situations, events we encounter that we never voice openly to our white colleagues,” explained Davis. 

“For an organization to work effectively, there has to be some kind of common understanding, common ground for people who work in that organization.”

The Healing Our Waters Coalition – a group of more than 145 environmental organizations – has put together an equity advisory committee.  The coordinator of the coalition, Carla Walker, says it will work with next year’s conference schedule as well as the coalition’s three-year strategy.

Urban water issues are everyone’s issues

in an afternoon panel, researchers and environmental activists focused the conversation on Flint and Detroit.  Mike Harris of the Flint Development Center advised those attending the conference to help local organizations and communities, and to make sure funding opportunities are available to everyone.

Another panelist, Emily Kutil, is a professor at the University of Detroit and a researcher with the We the People of Detroit Community Research Collaborative.  She says there are troubling trends in cities all over the country, beyond Flint and Detroit.

“Austerity policies, privatization of public resources, disinvestment from the public sphere, and from infrastructure as well as disregard for public health and public safety,” explained Kutil.

“One of the things we really hope is that people at this conference can really look at what’s happened in Detroit and Flint and start to investigate their own communities.”

The conference continues Wednesday with sessions on wetlands, Asian carp, and drinking water.

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